Snake Fauna of the Orianne Indigo Snake Preserve

Elizabeth Schlimm with Florida pine snakes (Pituophis melanoleucus)

From my very first visits I realized I was experiencing something special. The Orianne Indigo Snake Preserve (2,530 acres), a little piece of paradise in the Coastal Plain of southeastern Georgia, is a beautifully unique natural area and a snake lover’s paradise.

An on-site buttonbush pond is home to a little blue heron rookery and a Mama alligator we’ve known for a long time. In wet years, the gator’s “pod” is often seen swimming this swamp. Faces splotched green with duckweed, they “chirp” steadily.

A large sandhill on the east side of Horse Creek (a scenic blackwater tributary of the Ocmulgee River) is one of my favorite places to explore. Draw back the curtains of Spanish moss that clothe nicely-proportioned sand post oaks, and you suddenly find yourself on an open, sandy, wiregrass savannah, with hundreds of tortoise burrows. In the summer there are spectacular carpets of wildflowers. Downslope, a small perennial seepage area is home to a colony of Southern Red Salamanders.

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The tiny Tantilla coronata (southeastern crowned snake)
is one of the smallest of North American snakes

This summer we were treated to a feeding aggregation of kites that lasted several days. About a dozen each Mississippi Kites and Swallow-tailed Kites displayed their aerial talents as they foraged for dragonflies and other insects over an open section of sandhill.

From antlions to bobcats, river otters to spadefoot toads, the Orianne Indigo Snake Preserve — created to preserve Eastern Indigo Snakes and Gopher Tortoises — has much to offer. This particular site was selected because scientists identified the Ocmulgee–Altamaha River drainage as a noteworthy region that still supports a large Indigo Snake and tortoise population.

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The attractive eastern coral snake,

Micrurus fulvius, is a secretive snake
that spends much time hidden underground

A number of snake species characteristic of xeric sandhill habitats have been documented on the preserve, including the Eastern Coachwhip, Scarlet Snake, Eastern Indigo Snake, Florida Pine Snake, and Southeastern Crowned Snake. We have observed several Eastern Hognose Snakes (in south Georgia locals refer to this snake as “spreading adder”), but have yet to find the rare and declining Southern Hognose Snake (we have our fingers crossed; additional survey work may disclose a population of this highly secretive and fossorial (“burrowing”) species.

For the aficionado of big snakes, well, we’ve got them! The sun-loving Eastern Coachwhip, a nonvenomous Mamba impersonator who can run very fast and often reaches 6.0 – 6.5 feet (and I have measured several close to 7 feet in length). We have marked several Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes on the preserve that exceeded 8 lbs. in weight and were close to 5.5 feet long. Ongoing drift fence surveys of our sandhill habitats by Elizabeth Schlimm of the University of Georgia have captured several Florida Pine Snakes a good five feet in total length. Newly-captured, irritated Pine Snakes “hiss” by passing air over the glottis (now I do like snakes, but frankly the first time I was privy to this display it frightened me). And for those of you keeping score at home, the largest Eastern Indigo Snakes encountered in south Georgia, invariably males, are typically 7.5 feet long and around 8-10 lbs. in weight. On an early reconnaissance mission to the preserve, while surveying near tortoise burrows, I found 25 feet of Indigo Snake (n = 4 snakes) in a little over an hour (equaling a personal best).

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The highly arboreal rough greensnake

(Opheodrys aestivus) eats insects
(caterpillars, crickets) and spiders

Going in the other direction the diminutive Southeastern Crowned Snake (a rear-fanged centipede consumer and one of our many snake species that never, ever bites humans) is one of the smallest snakes native to Georgia; a large adult is about 10 inches long. With respect to the “confusing fall warblers” of the snake world (i.e., those little brown jobs that hide in decaying logs and under leaf litter) we have documented Redbelly and Brown Snakes, but have yet to capture a Rough Earth Snake, Smooth Earth Snake, or Ringneck Snake on the preserve. Still, it’s likely that we will eventually catalogue these species as members of the preserve fauna. The same can be said for the highly aquatic and singularly secretive Mud and Rainbow Snakes—floodplain swamps and the eel-rich waters of the Ocmulgee River (Rainbow Snakes are eel-eating specialists as adults) offer suitable habitats for these clandestine serpents.

The first ever Eastern Coral Snake found on the preserve was discovered twelve feet down a Gopher Tortoise tunnel burrow (by employing a burrow camera to observe burrow occupants). In addition to Indigos and Corals, a third ophiophagous (“snake-eating”) species, the Eastern Kingsnake, is also known to occur on the property.

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The brightly-colored scarlet snake (Cemophora coccinea)
has an oddly specialized diet: it prefers reptile eggs

We have found three of the six venomous species native to southern Georgia on-site (Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake, Cottonmouth, and Eastern Coral Snake). Copperheads have been documented on the state-managed Horse Creek Wildlife Management Area adjacent to the preserve. Timber (Canebrake) Rattlesnakes and Pigmy Rattlesnakes are not present on the preserve. Both species exhibit interesting biogeographic patterns in this region, with extensive parts of southern Georgia lacking populations.

Thus far we have documented 21 different species of snakes from the Orianne Indigo Snake Preserve, but we are just getting started, as the preserve is but four years old. We anticipate recording other snakes. By comparison, well-inventoried and intensively studied Coastal Plain sites like Fort Stewart (the site where I cut my snake-hunting teeth in Georgia) and the Joseph W. Jones Ecological Research Center (“Ichauway”) are known to harbor 33 and 27 species of snakes, respectively. At the Moody Forest Natural Area preserve, just a good swim downstream from our preserve, 20 species of snakes have been found thus far, the same total known for the mountain forest and trout stream habitats contained within the Chattahoochee National Forest of north Georgia.

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